Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow
A noisy, bustling mess of guitars meant to be heard loud.
Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love”
Anyone else remember Maggot Brain?
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Awkward teenage guitar rock, how I missed you.
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Matmos – Ultimate Care II
11. Sheer Mag – Sheer Mag III
Am I talking through nostalgia with this pick? Probably! You see, there’s this messy bar rock tone I grew up on, with smutty guitars and romantic clichés, that I love. You might recognize it when you hear “The Boys Are Back in Town” for the umpteenth time. You might recognize it from those years of Guitar Hero and their devotion to that dismissively titled “dad rock” everyone wants to talk about. Me, I hear that sound in Sheer Mag – and, man, it’s as stupidly wonderful as I remember it.
Highlights: “Worth the Tears”
10. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
I refuse to believe a year that produced something like Light Upon the Lake is all bad. Even with its devotion to age-tested themes like breakups and what-have-you, it still keeps a sunny innocence about it that’s oh-so charming. It’s a warm record of warm melodies and warm licks that feel like memory lane giving you a hug.
9. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Chance has a little more to think about these days, it seems. I remember seeing him way back when, a little after Acid Rap and a little before Chance’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses” became a more devout “Sunday Candy.” It was an alright time – I can’t blame Chance for the venue – but something stood out to me that makes a lot more sense now: Chance was as much a preacher as a rapper. The set was too short, the sound system too weak, the audience too dispersed. But a moment popped that sounded more like a choir than a concert.
I can’t remember the song, but pick any track from Coloring Book and the same feeling is there, save for one or two slow burns that escape me at the time of this blurb (which is probably for the best). But there’s slow jams that are jammmms and bangers that bannnng with an energy that’s, well, spiritual! I want to say I miss Acid Rap, but I’ll take “Blessings (Reprise),” “Juke Jam” and “No Problem” over “Cocoa Butter Kisses” most days.
8. The Hotelier – Goodness
It was a kind year for the “emo revival.” Ripe for nostalgia, bands like Jank and PUP twisted the confusion of youth and the romantic angst of adulthood, creating albums that could be as hilarious as they were heavy. We’re talking a gamut running from Crash Bandicoot samples to Pinkerton guitar pop, here.
At the top of this 2016 renaissance is Goodness, an album of emo melodic gold and dynamic songwriting that squeezed cups of life out of a once buried subgenre. There are moments where a few notes quietly entice you, only for power chords to rip you apart. The melodies are warm. The guitars are sharp. My ears are racked.
7. William Tyler – Modern Country
This album muscled its way onto my list. I didn’t expect to love it, but love was immediate. Modern Country is like the soundtrack to every Rocky Mountain postcard you’ve ever seen. It’s sweeping soundscapes are the sonic answer to Colorado landscapes. William Tyler sounds like he’s crafted a love letter to the American West, rolling tumbleweeds, open plains and all.
It’s an album to dream to and reminisce to – I’ve done both. Hell, there was even one time I turned this album on and thought I caught a sharp wisp of mountain air crawling through the room, only to be disappointed that it was just a desk fan and a couple of chords.
5. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
When I imagine Leonard Cohen singing, it’s almost never behind a microphone. I never hear a man singing as much as I hear him narrating, a fedora tipped over his eyes as he stands in the shadows of the local dive bar. He’s always wears the sharpest suit. He’s probably chain smoking. From behind the fedora, he’ll count the vices and pin every detail to a lyric. No one notices his song, but his song notices them.
You Want It Darker sounds like the last rasp of an old land of vice and romance. It’s the sound of a storybook for every situation coming to its end, not with any finality but with a sense of closure. As Cohen’s swan song, it’s a gorgeous denoument.
4. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Lemonade is a monster that I’m not wholly prepared to unpack. There’s the flood of Jay-Z’s infidelity. There’s a cascade of race and gender politics in every line. She’s both reserved and eruptive, often at the same time. Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd are there, but so is Jack White? And he’s not even on the country song?
The most amazing thing is how natural Lemonade feels for its time and for its artist. It’s hard to write about Lemonade without considering the time it was made, but Lemonade feels entirely unique from the other protest albums that’ll be flooding the industry in the years to come. There are moments of personal vulnerability that sneak out from behind her commanding voice, and they hit almost as hard as the calls to “get in formation” that send Lemonade off with a bang. “Freedom” could be as much a private mantra as it is an impromptu anthem. Same with “Formation” and “Daddy Lessons” and almost every other song on this album.
I guess I should just wrap this blurb up with the same word I uttered after first listening to Lemonade months ago: “Damn.”
3. David Bowie – Blackstar
Just as it’s impossible to divorce Lemonade from its times, it’s impossible to talk about Blackstar without the very real elephant in the room: Blackstar is a death album. Whether or not that was intended can be questioned, of course, but that almost doesn’t matter; either way, the last words we heard from David Bowie were this deeply haunting swan song.
Blackstar was an unsettling record at first listen, seemingly a far cry from the ham-fisted glam of, say, “Changes.” It felt aloof and somehow desperate, Bowie’s voice sounding disembodied as it cried to the horns and drums and bass that added so much muscle to it. A few days later, it was announced that Bowie had passed, and Blackstar was suddenly grounded and made so much sense that it hurt. The ensuing listening experience was one of the most empathetic of my life.
Highlights: “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
2. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Bless the Drive-By Truckers and every smart, nuanced song they’ve ever penned under the Southern rock banner. They’re a band that’s never really sounded out of bounds, channeling that bourbon-tinged hometown sound with an interrogative finesse.
American Band continues that tradition, reconciling Southern hospitality with its infamy in a year when that seemed to be needed the most. Of course there’s a song or two about South Carolina’s Confederate nostalgia, but the more thoughtful songs divorce themselves from the clichéd stars-and-bars that rack Dixie Land.
(Those one or two songs about South Carolina are damn fine rockers, by the way.)
1. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
The Life of Pablo is a qualified mess, one that’s as erratic as its creator. There’s so much crammed into its bloated run time that it still sometimes feels confined, as West splurges on his usual hyper-masculine id while burying that same id with the kind of self-doubt that made me honestly worried for the hip-hop maestro. One minute, his arms are aloft in prayer; the next, he’s fucking some model with a bleached bum. It’s insane.
That’s what makes West such an incredibly fascinating artist, though. In Pablo, he’s crafted a Guernica of human emotion and artistic style, bursting with every impulsive vision and image. The man owns who he is as an artist with every bombastic display of bravado and every emotional recession and regret, whether it’s that cooing optimism of “Famous” or that lonely howl behind “Wolves.” Hell, the man even takes credit for Taylor Swift and one-ups “Panda” before “Panda” was even a thing.
Maybe there’s something to be said about Pablo in the real world. West spent the better part of the year arranging and rearranging the album, swapping names and reworking almost every song long after the album had released. It’s aggravating as a consumer, but also kind of amazing; West shirked the traditional release in the name of his own vanity project, channeling his perfectionism into a structural breakdown that felt real (and became real only a few months later).
2016 was a year of releases. Pablo wasn’t a release. Pablo was a reality, a messy, sporadic, broken, fascinating, beautiful reality.